Augie returns to Acatla, intensely depressed at the loss of Thea. He complains of his suffering to a drunken Russian, who tells him wisely: “You are lucky to still be disappointed in love. Later it may be even more terrible.”
Augie sells his fancy equipment and goes to Mexico City. Stella has not sent the money she promised, so he looks up Manny Padilla’s cousin, who disappears with some of his money. In despair, Augie looks up Sylvester, who is also in Mexico City, working for the Russian exile Leon Trotsky. Sylvester finds Augie a place to stay, at the home of a fellow Communist sympathizer, a Yugoslavian named Paslavitch. Augie enjoys staying with the eccentric, piano-playing Paslavitch. Frazer, who is also still working for Trotsky, comes to see Augie. Trotsky’s life is in danger, and Frazer suggests that Augie can help with a plan to smuggle him into the U.S. However, the plan falls through, and Augie buys a bus ticket to Chicago with money borrowed from Paslavitch.
Augie visits George on his way back home. George has grown into a handsome man, and has learned the trade of shoemaking. He recognizes Augie immediately and is happy to see him, not bitter for having been neglected, despite the fact that nobody has come to see him in three or four years. Augie feels bad that his brother is imprisoned inside the walls of the institution. He takes him outside the gates for a walk, but George becomes afraid and wants to go back.
Next, Augie visits Mama, who is living in bourgeois splendor in the home for the blind. Simon has been treating her well, and she has the latest radio and a luxurious rug. Mama worries because Augie is so skinny. She urges him to visit his brother.
Simon has now become genuinely rich. He has sold his business and gone into real estate and other ventures, and they have paid off. He worries that Augie is wasting too much time and should begin making something of himself. He asks if Augie thinks himself superior because he doesn’t have money. Augie doesn’t think so. Simon may be wealthy, but he seems to lack any real friends. He despises all the men at his club, and he is hated by them.
Augie goes to see Einhorn, who has just had an operation and seems older. Einhorn complains that his son Arthur is being ruined by Mimi Villars. Mimi for her part thinks that Einhorn is a vain and selfish old man, and that Arthur is brilliant. Augie’s former admiration for Einhorn has faded, especially as he remembers that Einhorn had told him to be harsh toward his brother.
Augie’s friends, Padilla and Clem, have their own opinions about Augie. Padilla thinks Augie is too ambitious; he wants too much. Clem, about to finish his degree in psychology, says that Augie has “a strong superego. You want to accept. But how do you know what you’re accepting? You have to be nuts to take it come one come all. Nobody is going to thank you for trying.”
Desperate for cash, Augie accepts a job as a research assistant to an eccentric millionaire. The rich man, Robey, is writing a book about happiness from the perspective of the wealthy. Augie is paid by him to read pages and pages of philosophy, but he comes to realize that Robey is lonely and just wants someone to listen to his crazy ideas.
Augie gets his room back at the student boarding house and begins teaching elementary school. His former neighbor at the boarding house, Kayo Obermark, is teaching at the school as well. Augie philosophizes with Kayo, complaining that the world has become too complex and technical for humans to handle. “Love is the only answer,” responds Kayo. Kayo invites Augie to visit his family. Augie sells his car to Kayo’s brother-in-law, who then tries to cheat him at a card game to get his money back, but fails. However, the car has a serious mechanical problem—bent rods—which Augie failed to disclose. He is forced to take the car back and return the money. Kayo is angry with him, and Augie regrets being dishonest.
Augie is back with his ex-girlfriend, Sophie Geratis. Her husband has turned out to be gay. She wants to divorce him and marry Augie, but Augie doesn’t wish to marry her. He doesn’t want to be caught up in anybody else’s plans, not now. He is doing a lot of deep thinking and is coming to some conclusions about life, which he describes for his friend Clem in a dramatic speech: “I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!” He concludes by saying that his new plan is to buy a piece of property and live on it with his mother and brother Georgie. He would set up a home and academy for orphans there and teach classes, as well as doing a little farming. Clem thinks Augie has a nobility complex—he wants to set up his own little kingdom to rule. He thinks the plan is unrealistic and will never happen.
Suddenly, World War II interrupts everything and Augie prepares to join the armed forces. He is thoroughly taken up by the cause, giving impassioned speeches about the nightmare of totalitarianism. Before leaving, he learns to his grief that Thea has married again, to an Air Force captain. Meanwhile, Simon, who has grown fatter and richer still, has a beautiful young girlfriend named Renée. He never intends to leave Charlotte, however, and this is the cause of many fights and jealousy. Finally, Charlotte learns of the affair and demands an end to it, but Renée attempts suicide by swallowing pills, claiming she is pregnant with Simon’s baby. “What’s there to do? Nothing. There’ll be a kid now,” Simon says. “Who knows but this is the way you and George and I happened to come into the world.”
Analysis of Chapters 20–22
Augie is still floundering, unable to find his place in life. Perhaps he wants too much, as Padilla says. He wants the world, and doesn’t want to specialize in any one area. He wants to be good and noble, but can’t live up to his own expectations. He continues to be dishonest, as when he sells the defective car to Kayo’s brother-in-law, and is caught up in the schemes of others, as with Robey’s grand plan to describe human happiness. He seems susceptible to being swept along in the currents of history, as when Frazer proposes that he aid in a plot to smuggle Trotsky into the United States. When he finally comes up with a plan that he thinks will enable him to have something of his own, he is swept up by World War II, involved in a scheme of a worldwide scale.
As for Simon, he is tremendously rich and, by worldly standards, a great success. However, he is clearly now finding “bitterness in his chosen thing.” He is hated, and hates, the society of men at his exclusive social club, and the lack of romantic love in his marriage has driven him to find a young mistress who uses him for his money.
The “axial lines” of which Augie speaks—“Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!”—are the ideals to which humanity aspires. He catches a glimpse of them in his moments of clarity, when he stops striving and becomes calm. Augie feels that the way toward joy is to align himself with these axial lines, but the question remains as to whether anyone can truly live up to his own ideals.